The following is a guest blog by Nelson Searcy, Lead Pastor of The Journey Church of New York City and Founder of Church Leader Insights
I have a serious question for you. There is only one right answer to this question, so get ready. If you answer incorrectly, don’t be too discouraged. There is hope. But this question is a barometer that can’t be ignored. Here it is: Did you take your cell phone with you on your most recent date night with your wife?
If you did, let me assure you that you are not alone. A recent study by Hewlett-Packard found that 62 percent of the adult population is addicted to cell phone technology – that is, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, instant access to emails and, of course, phone calls. Pastors and other church leaders are not immune to this phenomenon. In fact, we may be among the guiltiest parties. We are a techno-connected bunch. We righteously clutch our Blackberries and iPhones, as we accuse the outside world of being unable to free themselves from technology’s hold. But how often do we disconnect? How often do we allow ourselves to step away from our pressing responsibilities and spend uninterrupted time focusing on things more eternal?
You may already be arguing with me: “But being connected allows me to stay right on top of urgent issues in my church.” Okay. “My associate pastor needs to be able to contact me anytime.” Really? “If I am out of touch, something might slip through the cracks – or worse, there might be a crisis that I’m not there to handle.” I hear you. But consider this: What if allowing yourself to disconnect at important times for appropriate time periods is really a statement of trust – an acknowledgement of God’s ability to handle the world without your help.
When to Disconnect
A few years ago I was attending a seminar led by a well-renowned speaker. Just before the seminar was about to begin, I, like most of the other church leaders in attendance, was busy shooting out a couple of last-minute emails and responding to a text message or two. When the speaker stepped onstage, the first thing he said was, “Why don’t you all give yourself a gift and turn off your cell phones for the duration of our time together. I want you to be able to focus your hearts and minds on what we’re going to be discussing.” His choice of words hit me squarely between the eyes – disconnecting from my cell phone for a period of time could be considered a gift I give myself. And by doing so, I would truly be able to center my attention on the critical information he was about to convey, without the distraction of a buzzing pocket. That’s the day this truth began solidifying itself in my mind: There is nothing wrong with being connected most of the time, as long as we realize and respect the importance of wisely disconnecting.
There are four scenarios where I believe it is not only important, but wise, to turn off your cell phone and focus completely on the moment:
1. When you are on a date night with your spouse
2. When you are spending time with your kids
3. While you study and prepare for your Sunday teaching
4. On your Sabbath day
Do you know what one of the best gifts you can give your wife is? Your undivided attention on date night. Do you know what your kids need from you more than anything else? Your undivided attention during your quality time with them. Know what your congregation trusts you to give to your preparation of each week’s teaching? You got it – your undivided attention as you seek and study the truths that are going to help them draw closer to God. And on your Sabbath day, do you know what God wants from you? He wants your focus to be on him. We can’t give our full attention in any of these four arenas when we are constantly dinging, vibrating, ringing, answering, scrolling, updating, reading, responding… you get the point.
In my experience, the most difficult to honor of these four disconnects is the Sabbath day, so let me be clear: I am not proposing that you put your cell phone in a drawer for the entire day. In ministry, that is practically impossible. But I am saying that you make a concerted effort to focus your attention on God, family and rest, rather than the emails that you “could” catch up on or the phone calls that you “should” make while you have down time. If you need to send an email or two, fine. For the most part, however, create distance between your cell and yourself, and direct your energy toward engaging in a true Sabbath. The day of rest and reflection was God’s idea after all, so I’d say we should take it seriously.
The Fear Factor
There is only one thing that keeps most of us from being able to disconnect (besides our proposed addiction) – the fear that we will be needed during the time we’ve made ourselves unavailable. That’s why being able to intentionally disconnect is both a statement and a test of faith. By powering down when you are involved in activities that deserve your complete focus, you are releasing control of your people and your church back to God. You are essentially saying, “God, I am not the commander. You are. I acknowledge that the world will not fall apart if I spend a few uninterrupted hours away from my phone.”
The biggest trap that keeps many of us over-connected is a self-created, constant sense of urgency. We have something of a savior mentality, so we too often make problems more problematic than they really are. We make ourselves too invaluable. If we could step back and gain some perspective, we would remember that we are not actually in control. Don’t misunderstand – we are called to have our hand to the plow. We are called to diligence, discipline and excellence. But we are not the ultimate determining factor in our lives and our churches. God is. What a relief! Given the fact that God is God and we are not, we would be wise to practice putting more trust in his sovereignty and less in our own. As we do, we will be able to periodically step away from the onslaught without fear, thereby honoring God and acknowledging his true position.
Consider this scenario: A couple calls your office because their lives are falling apart and they are on the brink of divorce. They need help. They need to talk to you. You are their last hope. So, your secretary texts you and lets you know that they want to meet with you today, as soon as possible. But you are booked solid until 6. What do you do? Well, the savior mentality kicks in, so you want to jump on your white horse and save the day. You want to sit them down, point them to God’s truth, show them a way out of their pain, patch it all up and send them on their way. So nine times out of ten, you will call your wife and tell her that you aren’t going to make it home for dinner. You’ll tell the kids goodnight over the phone. And then you’ll go save someone else’s family.
I contend that you are making the wrong decision for all of the right reasons. You should be available to meet with the people in your church who need you – especially those who are dealing with urgent life situations. But here’s the truth that we all know and yet usually fail to acknowledge: If this couple’s world is in shambles and they are considering divorce, the situation is going to be the same three days from now as it is today. If your secretary tells them that you can meet with them during work hours later in the week, they will wait to talk to you. You don’t have to charge into the battle at the expense of spending quality time with your family. Of course there are exceptions but, in general, nothing is as urgent as we make it out to be. And we are not as indispensable as we like to think. This mentality is what lays the groundwork for our hyper-connected lives, forcing us to be continually engaged as we bounce from one “crisis” to the next. The great news is that God has it all under control; let him lead you into learning to let go of the perpetual urgency.
The problem of being unable to wisely disconnect continues to compound. The Hewlett-Packard study referenced above also found that “today’s dependence on daily technology, including e-mail and cell phones, can be slightly more detrimental to your IQ than smoking marijuana…. Continual e-mail use and text-messaging lowered the average worker’s IQ by as much as ten points. Smoking marijuana regularly, on the other hand, causes only a four-point drop in intelligence.” Now that’s scary stuff. We are unknowingly inflicting damage on our brains worse than that caused by drug use. Jesus didn’t mince words when he taught us that our body is our temple. We wouldn’t consider damaging our mental capacity with drugs, and yet we do just that when we allow our focus to be continually skewed by our “smart phones.” Ironic, don’t you think?
As a generation of technology addicts, we are slowly losing our ability to focus on anything for an extended period of time. Most of us would be hard-pressed to think about one thing for a solid hour, without the distraction of a phone call, text message or email. Try it sometime. I have; it’s difficult. I have become convinced that lack of focus, disguised as work overload, is one of the biggest issues pastors face. If our ability to focus is as lacking as all signs indicate, then those of us who feel overworked are probably not as overworked as we think. We are overly distracted, and that distraction is sabotaging our productivity. Not to mention the fact that instant access is decreasing our capacity to focus on God. When we are constantly connected, we are putting ourselves in a position where we can’t simply “be still” and hear God’s voice. And since we are in the business of advancing his kingdom, not our own, this can prove to be quite a problem. Our tendency to over-communicate with each other is often resulting in a breakdown of communication with the one we need to hear from the most.
So what is the solution? Learn to disconnect. You hereby have permission to master the art of periodic unavailability. Let it be a gift you give yourself. Go about your work with zeal and integrity, but when it is time to focus on your wife or your studying, focus with the same zeal and integrity. I challenge you to take the dangers of this phenomenon of distraction to heart and prayerfully make the necessary changes. Decide to disconnect when it’s called for so that you can find focus in all areas of your life. When you manage the time and resources God has given you well – as he intends rather than as our culture demands – you unlock the door to unimaginable blessing. So do yourself, your church, and the ultimate purposes of God a favor – turn off your cell phone and go play with your kids.